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The Battle of Maldon


                                                …was broken.

He had each man     abandon his horse

driving it far     so he could march

forward unfettered        his mind on his hands    

and the blade of his sword        with its edge of honor.

Great Offa’s kinsman    when he first understood

the earl would not now    tolerate cowards

set free from his hand     his favorite hawk

to fly high  on the wind     away to the forest.

Forging them forward     shoreward, warward,

that lusty lad     would not shrink from the moment

as any man might     see for himself

when it was time     to hold his weapon.

Eadric likewise,     eager to serve

his lord in the combat,     carried his spear,

daring, determined     with sword hand and shield hand

to vindicate vows     given the master.

Byrhtnoth then began     to arrange in order

his muster of men      in the best dispositions,

how they should hold      homestead ground

their round-shields aligned     together in good grip            

and with broadswords  ready      and not be frightened.

When they were rightly     arrayed as he wanted

he dismounted at last    to stand on the turf

hard by his hearth’s men     closest and most loyal.


The Viking herald,     strident, shouting

from shore declared     the Vikings’ clear purpose.

His errand: to tell     the earl the terms

of the seafarers’ message     from the ships on the bank:

“Send in all speed     to the valiant seamen

treasure to take.     Buy your safety,

paying them tribute     to avoid battle.   

We see no need     for wanton destruction

for you are wealthy     and we can deal--

for gold to give     the advantage of truce.

If you and your council     consider our offer

you will send us seafarers     away from Essex

and redeem your people     with the peace all men want.

We will go willingly,     your gold in our coffers,

traveling elsewhere     and leave you alone.”

Byrhtnoth spoke     hefting his shield

and ashen spear,     to answer for all:

“Hear them, seaman?     Hark at my host.

What they will pay     is spears they will send

with poisoned points     and their family swords,

those heriot weapons     not for your profit.

Go then, envoy,     say to your seamen

our terse terms--     that the English earl

stands fast with his troops,     defends his homeland,

and defies your demands     upon Aethelred’s realm,

his land and his people.     In hard battle

heathens will fall,     for it would be shameful

that you should depart        in your plundering ships

without the fight     that we must give you.

Thus far have you come     into our country,

but fare no farther     or think to extort

what is ours from us.        Point and sharp edge

must carve the conclusion,     who gives and who takes,

and settle the terms     before we pay tribute.


He bade them then    to heft their shields

and all advance     to the bank of the river

where water would ward     one troop from the other

while the flood tide took     its own time turning.

They waited for water,     the Pant’s current,    

where waterstreams locked     to ebb and allow    

the spearmen to move        and, patient, watched                      

the ship-army   of Viking invaders.

 Both sides were harmless     except for arrows’

feathered flight     till the tide moved out,

and the many Vikings in ranks    eager for war

stood in massed menace.     Byrhtnoth then ordered

Wulfstan, Ceola’s son,    his hero to guard the bridge       

the bravest of brethren.     When the first of the Danes

approached the bridge,     with sharp spear-shot

he cut him down.     Alongside Wulfstan,

stood Aelfhere and Maccus,     a fine pair of steadfast men

who would not deign     to flee from that ford

but defied the foe     with the weapons they wielded.

When the Vikings discovered        these gallant bridge-guards

they fell back, dissembling,     and craved, as if craven,

permission to put ashore     to lead their men safely

into battle and blood-risk.     The earl, overconfident,

granted them passage,       too much land

to those hateful people,    and Byrhthelm’s son, Byrhtnoth,    

called across the chill water     as his host harkened:

“The pathway is open.       Come to us quickly,

war-men meeting war-men.     God alone knows

who will win control     of this killing field.”



Advancing then, the Viking army,     careless of water,

crossed the Pant westward,     lifting high

their linden shields.     Opposed, the fierce

forces of Byrhtnoth     then formed a war-wall,

shield next to shield,     to hold off the attack,

for the crisis had come,     the time of trial

where the men who are fated     will fall as they must.

Overhead ravens     and carrion-hungry

screeching eagles     made leisurely circles,

while below the massed men     sent their roar skyward,

followed by sharp-filed     spears they flung.

Bows, too, were busy,       and Viking shields

bristled with arrows.      The war-charge then

was fierce, and men fell     leaving the ground

a clutter of corpses,    and Wulfmar wounded

and sliding to death-rest     he could not refuse.

Byrhtnoth’s kinsman,     his sister’s son,

was hard-hacked     by many swords.

But the wound was redressed       as Edward offered

payment in kind,     and a doomed fighter,

as I have heard,     fell at his feet.

For this his lord thanked him     at the earliest moment,

telling his chamberlain.     Thus, they stood,

firm and strong-minded,     men in hard battle,

keen in competing     whose pointed weapons might

find their way     to fated men

and garner the lives     of those men of war.

Dying men fell     but the steadfast and resolute

still stood as Byrhtnoth gave     his heartening words,

that whoever strove now     to achieve great glory

should look to the Danes    to drag it from them.


The bold one, Byrhtnoth,     raised up his weapon

and set his shield     to stride toward a soldier,

the earl to the churl     and each meaning evil.

That seaman marauder     hurled his southern spear

and wounded was     the warriors’ lord.

Byrhtnoth banged the shaft,     shaking it free

and stabbed with the spear-point     its Viking owner,

giving him back     the bite of its wound.

Skillful was Byrhtnoth     and he struck with his lance,

hitting the Viking     and piercing his neck

and in that quick thrust     reaching his life.

He turned to another     and hurled at this Viking

that lance that landed     and pierced through his chainmail

the hard point     hitting his heart.

Elated, the earl,     the valiant victor,

laughed aloud     and gave thanks to his God.

for the work of the day,     the deity’s grant.

But one Viking then     loosed from his hand

a javelin striking     Aethelred’s noble thane,

Byrhtnoth, and biting     into his body.

Hard by his side     a fledgling fighter,

Wulfstane’s son     the young Wulfmaer

drew from his lord     the bloodied spear

and flung it forward    back at that Viking

to get him for getting     the lad’s lord.

This strike was successful     and the Viking lay down dying.

Came then another     Viking marauder

up to the earl     to harvest rich pickings,

rings and armor    and patterned sword.

But Byrhtnoth could draw    his blade from its scabbard

to strike at that sailor   and would have, but one

of the cut-throat’s comrades     hit the earl’s arm

and rendered it useless.     His biting blade then

fell to the earth,     for Byrhtnoth could no more

hold the weapon’s weight.     Still, he could speak,

that white-haired war man,     to encourage his people

and urge them onward.     His legs were unsteady

and footing uncertain,     as the hero to heaven

spoke his last words:     “I give you my thanks,

O King of Kings,     for all my achievements

in this life I have lived.     Now, my king Maker,

I ask a last favor,     that you may admit me

into your high domain.     Lord of the Angels,

grant peaceful passage     and hear my petition

that the demons of hell     not snare my spirit.”

Then heathen men hacked him     and his two companions,

Alfmar and Wulfmaer         who had stood beside him

and, along with their lord,     they too gave their lives.


They then fled the battle     whose spirit for the fighting

began now to quaver:     Odda’s son, Godric

was the first man who fled,     abandoning Byrhtnoth

who had given him many mares     and their trappings and tack.

He leapt on his lord’s     own charger

who had not ever earned      the right to ride and use,

and he and his brothers,     Godwine and Godwig,

flew from the battle     they could not bear,

away from the fighting     to hide in the forest.

to find there some refuge  and save their hides,

they and many more     spiritless men

who each had received     Byrhtnoth’s favors.

Offa had warned him     early that day

at the morning meeting     in the counsel-place

that many who spoke     the speeches of warriors

might not at need     be worth their fine words.  


Æthelred’s earl,     their leader, lay dead,

and all who saw     Byrhtnoth’s body,

the proud thanes     and the household troops,

brave men now     hastened keenly,

seeing but two     choices of honor:

either to die there     along with their lord,

or else to avenge him,     and kill many Danes.

Ælwin, Ælfric’s young son,     urged them all onward

making his valorous speech:     “Remember those times

after much mead     there in the great hall

we were such heroes     making proud vows

of our bearing in battle,     the times of tough fighting.

Now we discover     which ones are brave.

I pray that my progeny     declare with some pride

among Mercian men     of noble line

that I was here.     My grandfather, Ealhelm,

an earl of much wisdom,     did well in the world.

Let no one now taunt me     that I wanted to go

away from this army     home and to safety

when my leader lay     cut down in the fighting,

my kinsman, my lord,         the greatest of griefs.”

Then he moved forward     hot with his hatred

and with his weapon-point     found one of the Vikings

impaling the pirate   to leave him lying

dead on the ground.   With this he could rally     

as much as his words did     his friends and his comrades    

to advance toward the enemy.     Offa spoke up

shaking his ash-spear:        “Yea, Ælwin has said it

to urge you all on,     the good thanes at need-time.

Byrhtnoth lies dead,     our earl on the earth,

and this is our moment     to rally each other

forward to war,     holding our hard blades

of spear and sharp sword.      The coward, Godric,

Odda’s get, has betrayed us,   fleeing the field

on Byrhtnoth’s own mount,     thus dispersing the army

and breaking the shield-wall.         Damn him for what he did,

spreading his foul fear        among the formation!”

Leofsun then spoke,     raising his linden shield:

“I offer my oath.     Not one step backward!

I fare only forward     to avenge in hard battle

my good lord’s death.     The brave men of my village,

the people of Sturmer,       will not have the need

to reproach my behavior.     My friend has fallen

and I am lordless.     I will not go home

or turn away from the fight,     but a weapon must take me,

point or sharp blade edge.”     He advanced in his anger

and steadfast he fought,     scorning the flight.

Dunner spoke up     as he brandished his weapon.

An honest peasant,    he called out to all,

bidding each soldier     to avenge great Byrhtnoth:

“Let no one hesitate     who intends to wreak vengeance

on the Viking horde,    nor fear for his life!”

And then they moved forward,     indifferent to death.


Into the fight, then,     the brave spear-bearers

advanced to avenge     their stricken good lord,

and prayed to the Lord     that they might destroy Danes.

Their hostage helped them,     a Northumbrian captive,

Edglaf’s son, Asfroth,        of hardy kin.                                   

He joined in the struggle,     firing arrows.

Some stuck in shields     but some pierced Vikings,

and on and on he fought,     wielding his weapon

as long as he could.     The tall Edward,

fierce in the front line,     shouted defiance

and said he would never     yield one foot of land

when his lord lay dead.     He broke through their shield wall

and with fellow fighters     collecting from Vikings

blood for Byrhtnoth’s blood.     Æthric, also,

a noble warrior,     pressing forward

wreaked worthy vengeance.    He, Sibricht’s brother,

and many more with him     split the Danes’ targes

and defended themselves     as chain-mail sang

its shrill terror-songs.      Offa in battle

struck one of the seamen     who fell to the turf:

Gad’s kinsman fell,     cut down in the fighting.

Still, he had fulfilled     his oath to his lord,

the ring-giver Byrhtnoth,     that they return together

into the town     or else die together

from wounds on the slaughter-field.     Noble, he lay there

close to his lord.     Then were shields crashing

as the Vikings, enraged,     fought their way forward,

their sharp spears      piercing life-boxes.

Wystan advanced,     Thurstan’s son,

and hot in the hurly-burly     felled three of their fighters

before he himself     lay dead on the ground.

There was hard fighting     with warriors standing firm

in the hard struggle.     Worn down by wounds

fighters fell.     All the while,

Oswold and Eadwold,     two brawny brothers,

exhorted the men,     their cousins and kinsmen,

to stand firm     and to use their good weapons.

Then Byrhtwold spoke up,     raising his shield,

an older fighter,     shaking his ash-spear

and exhorting the men:     “Your minds put in order,

and settle your hearts.     Our courage must grow

as the strength we have ebbs.     Here lies our leader,

a good man in the dirt.    Any who leave now

will ever be sorry     for quitting this war work

to survive then in shame.     I have lived long

and I know much of life,     but I shall not leave here.

My firm intention     is here to be killed

to lie by the side     of the lord I have loved.”

Godric, too,     Ethelgar’s son,

called them to battle,     and hurling his javelin,

a death-spear flying     into the Vikings.

And he with his friends     advanced on the Danes,

hacking at them     and cutting them down

until he, himself,     was killed in the combat—

a far different Godric   than he who had run….


Translated by David R. Slavitt


Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.